Every epic Southern adventure has a starting point. Mine began well north of the Mason Dixon line almost thirty years ago. I was raised a classic New England WASP. For those not familiar with the term it stands for White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, which basically means that I was raised on a carefully dished out diet of stuffy ballroom dancing classes, grass court tennis at the country club, and tight-collared prep schools. The usual stuff.
Fortunately my 11th grade prep school roommate happened to hail from just outside of Statesville, NC, and he was Southern to the core. His dad was an old school tobacco executive, and when I visited him for spring vacation we spent most of the time driving around at night in his pick up truck just yelling out the windows—at what I can’t remember. It was the best spring break I ever had.
It was Randy Travis’s second album in 1987 “Always & Forever” which he played over and over again that sealed my own personal conversion to the South. My shameless addiction to country music ever since almost sent my wife running for the hills (who loved old school hip-hop when we first met over a decade ago). She’s now been converted as well and sports her cowgirl boots and cut off jeans in the front row of the Kenny Chesney summer concert every year.
Randy Travis, George Jones, and George Strait also introduced this northern WASP to the joys of tailgating, line dancing, bass fishing tournaments, and west Texas Friday Night Lights—which needless to say long ago replaced grass court tennis and ballroom dancing on my preferred activity card.
After I graduated from college and moved to the Florida Keys, my Southern transplant roots kept burrowing deeper. I soon learned that my great, great uncle, born in rural Maine, fled south via Chicago to Key Biscayne in his early 40s and built what is now a museum called Vizcaya. My great grandfather, though originally from New York, built an estate in Aiken in the 1930s called ‘Banksia’, which is now home to the Aiken County Historical Museum.
I’ve been wondering ever since if, like my great, great uncle and great grandfather, I was actually a Southern boy at heart who the stork just accidentally dropped into the wrong maternity room a little too far north. Last weekend came the most direct Southern connection of all. Thanks to Ancestry, a close relative discovered that Jefferson Davis is possibly my great, great, great uncle on my mother’s maternal side.
Genealogy is an adventure unto itself into one’s own past. Some people bury it, fearful of what they might unearth. Others use genetics to pursue an agenda, for better or worse. For my wife and I, it’s the simple, passionate starting point for an upcoming red dirt road Southern adventure in a renovated vintage Airstream to uncover our own Dixie roots, and in the process to chomp on every rind, plantation, and NASCAR tire we can find in one of the most historic regions of America that we have never fully gotten to know. In deference to our habitually vagabond roots, we also like think of it this way—“The Yankee couple who gave up everything, moved into a 200 square foot mobile apartment with their two dogs, and discovered the South.”
One of my favorite recent books is an autobiography called An African In Greenland about a young man from Togo in western sub-Sahara Africa who somehow fell in love with the most snow-covered island in the world and eventually spent years living among the native Inuit. It’s a brutally simple and sincere account of how all of us, no matter how different our personal histories, are never too far apart. The fact that I got my wife to fall in love with country music is no more perfect proof. Hopefully this Yankee couple’s upcoming rebel journey to rediscover their Dixie roots and love of all things Southern will do a little of the same for you.
First stop? Richmond, Virginia where Jefferson Davis is buried, and my Southern family tree begins. Stay tuned.